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Paul Gough
The Avenue of War

This paper examines interpretations of a key motif in the battlefield landscape of the Western Front during the First World War. In a war where the battlefield was deserted by day and where every inch of tactical advantage had to be gained from a terrain scoured of its features, great emphasis was laid on correctly interpreting the state of the war through the face of the landscape. On the empty battlefield of the Western Front the actualities of war came to be conveyed not only through the actions of men or machines, but through the appearance of the landscape.

The tree-lined roads was a key element in the iconography of the battle grounds. It came to serve many metaphorical functions - as an emblem of mainland Europe, as a metaphor for both forward propulsion and disintegration of directional thrust, and as a symbol of the underlying geometric infrastructure of parks and farmland devastated by years of war.

The column march has become one of the lasting images of the Great War.1 Having endured an apparently aimless and endless train journey from base-camp to railhead the troops of the British Expeditionary Force marched to war along the great tree-lined roads of Northern France. In the opening months of the war never had an environment seemed so suited to the mood of determination and purpose:
    '… on the way to Shrapnel corner: a long road across a wide plain, no buildings no trees except an avenue of precisely spaced Lombardy poplars which tucked
    in the road, so to say: no abrupt turnings, no side tracks, no ups, no downs. A road not to be taken casually, the first step obviously committing one to going on
    to some end.'
To many soldiers the avenue summarised the very foreignness of the continent and it soon became a popular motif in soldier's letters, poetry and drawings. Subaltern Charles Douie (whose war memoir is aptly entitled The Weary Road recalled his first column march 'along a great road which stretched to the horizon as straight as only a French road can be.' 3 Also, many soldiers knew the military history of these roads, recalling how they facilitated troop movements in the ear of Marlborough and Wellington.

Exhilaration, however, soon gave way to fatigue. Soldier-artist Keith Henderson wrote wearily of 'poplars and more poplars. Still we rumble on through symmetrical France.' 4 The exacting discipline required of a marching column was soon exacerbated by the strict rhythm and debilitating infinity of the French highway: one soldier complaining:
    'the tree-lined sides stretched ahead, the perspective drawing them together in a never-ending V for a couple of kilometres or so. There would be a slight change of
    direction and straight ahead another taunting V.'
Nevertheless, some of the best remembered and most potent images of the early days of the war are those of marching men. C.W.R Nevinson's many pictures of troops on the march seem to summarise the frenetic energy of modern warfare. (Figure 1) Yet Nevinson's marching pictures now seem firmly rooted in the first period of the war when vast professional armies rushed to defend their borders. The weeks of mobilisation also saw the deployment of huge numbers of troops by railway: in France alone, over two million men were moved into battle position aboard 4.278 trains (of which, it is said, only 19 ran late).6

As the war developed into a series of encounter battles on the Aisne and the Marne the era of the railway passed and the next best equivalent for the sensation of forward momentum came to be represented by the act of marching. In turn, as the fighting ground into static warfare any suggestion of forward momentum had to be conveyed not through the futurist language of dynamic motion but through a re-appraisal of the spatial and temporal dynamics of the avenue.

In the era of the 'empty battlefield' that characterised the middle three years of the war (late 1915 until 1917) the role of the avenue in the battle landscape changed. There is a useful parallel here between the several 'stages' of the avenue as it traversed the static battle and the three recognisable stages in the course of a river.
7 Although now considered to be over-simplified. Davies identified three stages in the evolution of a river from spring/watershed to estuary and these can be likened to the nature of the avenue on a fixed war front: both shared an energetic, youthful stage characterised by propulsion and forward momentum: this is followed by a middle stage where momentum is lost and the route becomes circuitous as the initial energy is blocked and diverted: the final stage is typically lethargic, meandering, often idle.

On the Western Front the avenue in its early stage represented a thrusting, relentlessly direct route on the war front, indeed the avenue might be regarded as a surrogate railway line moving troops with maximum speed into a spatially homogeneous and secure environment. After this early channelled energy, the avenue was absorbed into the active war zone. Here it was pulverised by shellfire and gradually over time was reduced to a bare, treeless road. In this middle stage the avenue's part in a rational perspectival system came to be torn apart, its singular direction was replaced by confused and ambiguous directions, and its previous role as part of a formalised geometric groundplan was often submerged in the debris of No Man's Land. In the final phase of its three stages the mono-directional sense was lost completely. This total loss of energy and direction is best represented in the potent image of a single duckboard track meandering, almost aimlessly, across the levelled wastes of the flooded battlefield.

The Early Stage
Direct, unambiguous, assertive - the endless highways of northern France seemed the perfect embodiment of a martial ideal. Indeed, it might be argued that the image of a formal road in this fresh, thrusting early stage played a similar iconographic role to the railway system across the British Empire - it first neutralised, then commanded space by deeply penetrating the interior of hostile country. Certainly, its part in the official rhetoric of Government propaganda was not lost: recruiting posters featured soldiers marching unhesitatingly in columns, admirably aided by straight roads.

The journalist for the Daily Chronicle, Phillip Gibbs, wrote enthusiastically of its symbolic properties: 'Boulogne was a port through which all our youth passed between England and the long, straight road which led to No Man's Land.'
8 Even more pronounced is the description that accompanied a picture by the Royal Academician Frank Brangwyn - an etching of a Canadian gun battery aside a long avenues of trees leading to the infamous Bourlon Wood on the Somme. Here the avenue acts as a substitute for the trajectory and direction of the artillery shell, a point endorsed by the accompanying caption which tells how:
    '… the etching creates a powerful impression of a sweeping relentless onward movement towards Cambrai and Victory.' 9
Two further images summarise the thrusting energy of the tree-lined road as it cut its way across the battle zones of northern France. Both Paul Nash and Harold Sandys Williamson were drawn to the pictorial dynamic created by an endless column of men moving through the closed space of an avenue. In his lithograph 'Marching at Night' Paul Nash sought to simplify both the avenue and the column into basic geometric blocks. By doing so, the figures at the front of the column seem to stride out of the lower edge of the picture frame, while the geometrically simplified poplar trees in the avenue cut back into deep pictorial space. The dynamic is thus constructed out of the tension between the opposing thrusts of the avenue and the column. The picture seems to capture one of the peculiar optical effects caused by the regular spacing and uniform height of a long tree-lined road at night recalled by soldier-artist Paul Maze on the road south of the Aisne:
    '… a late moon appeared, ascending slowly into a perfect round above the dark line defining the far distance, the trees silhouetted against it appeared to slide
    backwards as we moved forwards.'
Though less inclined radically to simplify his subject. Williamson's watercolour 'The Route Nationale' catches the pain and tedium of the march in the facial expressions and postures of his front ranks. The rest of the picture though is heavily formalised; the horizon is artificially flat, each tree is simplified and conforms to a standard type, the perspective is unwieldy. Williamson thus stresses both the momentum and the monotony of the march. The adverse reaction of the formal avenue may owe something to the English antipathy to overtly formalised and geometric landscape design. Humphrey Repton, in his Enquiry of 1803, summarised the English revulsion to the authoritarian landscapes of Versailles and Vaux. He argued that the avenue destroyed variety and was a vulgar means of controlling nature and compelling the eye. The avenue belonged to a pompous and rigid landscape aesthetic that mistook greatness of scale with greatness of character. As Paul Fussell has argued in The Great War and Modern Memory, trench warfare on the Western Front would prove to be the ultimate anti-pastoral.11 As an antidote to the disfigurement of Nature the English soldier devised a complex Arcadian imagery that drew upon Romantic language and ancient English mythologies. While the wandering rural lane may have found a place in this Arcadia, the formal avenue would certainly have not.

The middle stage

As the avenue approached the active war zone it entered a complex middle stage. Both Nash and Williamson had achieved a sense of forward momentum by using a single vanishing point and by drawing the trees in two simplified, regimented rows. Both artists would also have recognised that any interruption in these rows would cause an uneven accent in the dominant rhythm and so undermine the directional energy and perspectival simplicity of the avenue.

Most soldiers recognised that trees were an important index of the ferocity and proximity of battle. On a battlefield, one tree missing in a copse of trees, for instance, can carry many possible interpretations, but the avenue was a far more sensitive instrument by which to gauge the true state of battle and could easily be interpreted by a practised eye. The height of a missing bough or a snapped trunk in an avenue of identical trees, for example, gave a subtle clue to the nearness of battle; furthermore the extent of the damage offered evidence of the actual direction of the enemy. Edward Handley Read's picture 'Somewhere in France' conveys this notion of imminent, directional threat - the fallen tree bough and plume of smoke assuming great significance in this deserted landscape. Similarly, the war illustrator Fortunino Matania recognised the usefulness of this pictorial code. In his commemorative painting 'The 2nd Battalion, Green Howards at Kruisseecke Crossroads'
12 a cloven trunk in an avenue of trees seems yet another part of the general war damage - smashed roofs, dead horses, wounded soldiers - but the tree is, in fact, crucial to the design. By placing it at the exact centre of the composition Matania ensures that all the other elements of the composition radiate from it. The sharp angle of the broken trunk acts, therefore, as a pictorial 'bridge' between the regimentation of the avenue and the effects of shellfire on the houses. It tells us, also, that the enemy is very close, while the avenue (which is 'sealed off' by sentries and a machine-gunner, and the figure of a senior officer in the mid-distance) suggests the source of the threat.

Artists and writers soon realised that the avenue was a uniquely powerful image because it could convey, in a single image, the effects of the passage of time on the deserted battlefield and the ways in which warfare altered the spatial understanding of the battle terrain.

First, the temporal changes. Travelling over the Somme battleground in 1916 the writer Reginald Farrer described the changes in an avenue over a period of time:
    'Along the voluminous velvety roads one rolls under plumy avenues of trees. And then the road becomes less velvety, and the avenues by degrees less plumy,
    till at once they are only stark skeletons, gap-toothed and shell-shattered in their rows.'
Often the changes in the landscape were much more abrupt. Royal Scots Guard Officer, Major Anderson, recalled a much more dramatic change in the landscape while marching along the poplar-lined road west of St.Eloi. Although it appeared to stretch ahead 'as straight as an arrow for miles' the column emerged from a small wood into a very different environment:
    '... we find ourselves back again on the Anzin Road and are immediately struck by the sudden changes in the landscape, the village of St Aubin is in ruins and
    only stumps of trees line the road'.
Anderson records his memory of the dramatic change in the face of the landscape in the sole drawing in his diary, which shows a small ink sketch of the tree-lined road leading to Vimy Ridge. In the drawing a number of trees are shattered, and the road is traversed with barbed wire and part of a trench, but, more ominously, the avenue ends abruptly in the middle distance.

The peculiar spatlal characteristics of the battlefield were noted by T. E. Hulme who wrote from the front line in 1915 about the sudden alterations in the 'feel', though not always the appearance, of the landscape:
    'In peacetime, each direction of the road is as it were indifferent, it all goes on ad infinitum. But now you know that certain roads lead as it were, up to an abyss.' 15
Possibly the closest approximation to Hulme's notion of a 'certain road' is the image of the war-torn track vanishing into the undefined haze of No Man's Land, the buffer zone between the facing armies that seemed to epitomise the inertia of the trench war. This concept of a 'certain road' is, perhaps best captured in the memorable, summative images of the photograph of the remnants of an avenue of the Somme battlefield, a route described ominously in the Official History of the War as 'the terrible road into Guillemont, straight, desolate, swept by fire.'16 Many other writers and artists found it a powerful motif, perfectly suited to express the uncertainties and unpredictability of siege warfare. The amateur painter G. A. Willis, a captain in the Royal Engineers, painted a fine watercolour of a plank track road on the Wytschaete Front, on its left the stump of the White Chateau of Hollebeke, the rest of the picture taken up by the track vanishing into the mist.17 The official war artist Adrian Hill was similarly drawn to the tree-lined duck board track that followed the line of one of the rides cut through Chateau Wood at Hooge - a view favoured some months earlier by one of the official war photographers also working on the Ypres Salient. In the photograph, the stark silhouettes of the ragged tree stumps fade into the aerial perspective of the murky, undefined distance. Hill, by contrast, retains some clarity as far as the horizon, but the undeviating straight line of the track gives way to a distance curve as it loses its mono-directional impetus in the deepest tracts of the battlefield.

Another important aspect in the progress of the avenue as it traversed the battlefield was its eventual (and inevitable) redundancy as a primary route. The nature of the fighting on the Western Front meant that very heavy concentrations of artillery could be brought to bear on fixed points of the front. Roads, villages, crossroads, even isolated buildings would be regularly fired on. Busy junctions such as Hellfire Corner - a crossroads on the Menin Road near Ypres - were so dangerous that soldiers dared not linger for a few moments. Roads exposed to enemy observation were screened with huge camouflage nets and hessian 'walls' creating a one-sided tunnel that must have produced in soldiers a quite extraordinary sense of false security, as well as exaggerating the perspectival thrust of the tree-lined road. But as the fighting gradually turned formal avenues into roads, and in turn the roads were denuded to wandering tracks the straight route itself became irrelevant, then redundant.

This fundamental change in the road's function is apparent in a picture by camouflage officer and artist Ian Strang. In his watercolour, 'The Menin Road with Tanks' the avenue is central to the composition: its path even rises to a distant ridge with the promise of an achievable vantage point and renewed downhill vigour. But these advantages are cruelly ironic - the roadway is churned and impassable, and the tanks' movement from right to left across the picture is proof that the orientation of the avenue is meaningless. There are now many paths across the battlefield, not just the one dynamic route implied by the avenue.

Painters and writers recognised the irony of the avenue in a battle landscape, and saw how its former axial authority and perspectival purity mattered for little in a total war environment. Soldier-artist Edward Handley-Read summarised the changed status of the tree-lined road in his charcoal and wash drawing of an avenue in a Portuguese-held sector of the front near Neuve Chappelle . The directional pull and the freedom of movement represented by the avenue are checked by a wooden barrier bearing a sign marked 'E Probida a Passagem'. The new, safe route is on the left of the picture where a smaller sign reads 'Sandbag Corner - Enter Trench'. Perhaps a little artlessly, Handley-Read spells out the altered directional hierarchies of the trench war. The confident, assertive thrust of the stately avenue has been supplanted by a weaving, modest pathway relegated to a corner of the composition.

These re-appraisals of the battle landscape were quickly learned by front-line soldiers; to a home audience they had to be signalled rather more clearly. Muirhead Bone graphically denotes the dangers of one war road in his drawing Road Liable to be Shelled (which was later reproduced in the mass circulation publication The Western Front). In it, a tree-lined avenue is sealed off by a barrier hung with two notices which warn soldiers of the dangers of 'the forbidden road'.

The other major feature of the avenue during its 'middle' stage lies in its past role as an element in formal landscape planning. This was an important aspect in the appreciation of the avenue because it provided irrefutable evidence to combatants that, hidden under the waste of war, there was not only a spatial, but a man-made order which might survive the fighting.

Reginald Farrer, exploring the battlefields at the end of the war, surveyed the levelled town of Souchez and thought it an 'evil tragic hollow' consisting, it seemed, of 'a few bleary hummocks of weed in and out among the stumps of a few blasted trees'.
18 He discovered, however, that near the site of the bombed chateau:
    'There is a pond and you can trace the outlines of plannings and plantings by a few golden elders that are sprouting up again in the jungles, and make you realise
    that somebody once bought fancy shrubs for this place which looks as if nothing but chaos had ever reigned here.'
As the desolation on the battlefield began to smother larger and larger tracts of the landscape, soldiers began to crave the hidden order of the many formal gardens and large country estates that littered Flanders and northern France.

Pre-war maps of the country grouped such estates under the rather grand designation of 'chateau' - a term which embraced all large private houses from the red-brick lodge at Hooge to the neo-classical edifice some miles east at Potijze. The gardens of these buildings, and most of the woods and forests on their estates, were crisscrossed by straight rides and formal paths.

Just as combatants learned to detect the traces of these ground plans, so artists came to value their hidden patterns. At one level they offered a subject-matter or motif against which the rules of basic composition could be applied - perspective, framing devices, perceptible foreground and distant objects. On another level the formal landscape was proof of an underlying order that had been only temporarily concealed by the debris of warfare. Infantry subaltern Charles Douie notes how the ground plan of the chateau grounds at Thiepval could be easily traced, adding that just below his dug-out were 'the remains of two red-brick gate posts which had led from the chateau garden to the orchard in the valley below'.

The avenue was one of the more easily identified elements in that order, and it was readily associated with garden ornamentation and formal landscape planning. J B Morrall, an officer in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, made (amongst several fine watercolour paintings) a picture of the ruined village of Contalmasion (Figure 11). The picture shows little that is outwardly remarkable - a destroyed cottage, stripped trees, a dirt track - but the picture is bisected into almost equal halves by a single tall tree. To the right of this tree Morrall has distinguished, amid the wreckage, two parallel rows of trees that mark the original path of the road. On the left of the picture is the new war road - a meandering track which, like so many other battlefield roads in the middle stage, takes a circuitous path across the desolated land. Where Morrall condensed these observations into a single image, other soldiers chose to develop the theme over a period of time and across a great many works.

Major Geoffrey Rose MC served on the Western Front for three years in the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and kept a sketchbook throughout that time.
21 Over some 150 separate drawings Rose drew upon the image of the avenue as a 'talisman' of order and rationality. From the first drawing of June 1915 to his last work in Bourlon Wood in October 1918 the avenue is a fixture in his sketchbooks, sometimes smashed to pieces, at other times restored to its axial dignity. Even on the desolated battlefield of the Somme Rose craves the formal rigidity of the avenue, trying to pick out from amongst the debris of battle the former path of the approach road to the Chateau at Bourlon. G. A Willis, interestingly, also concludes his pictorial record of his war with a watercolour Advance through Belgium, November 1918- which depicts army transport moving along a symmetrical avenue towards a recaptured town.22 As with Rose's obsession or the underlying geometric order, Willis chooses the avenue for his summative war image - a metaphor for renewed propulsion and the liberation of space and movement.

The official war artist William Rothenstein was similarly drawn to the submerged order of the battle landscape. Rothenstein favoured a severely formal method of designing the landscape and much to his delight the shattered land south of the Somme teemed with suitable motifs. In many of his paintings he attempted to pick out the remnants of the formal landscape, as both a comment on the effects of war and to satisfy his need for pictorial order and formality. His gouache painting (and etchings) of The Avenue at Chaulnes are testimony to his feel for the severity and symmetry of the formal French landscape and his ambition to find the former, ordered landscape beneath battle's ruination.

The Late Stage
As it crossed the battlefield the tree-lined avenue was being gradually, remorselessly ground down. Its trees were shattered, its straightness threatened and then lost, any sense of forward propulsion had long gone by the time it crossed No Man's Land. In its final stage the routeway had become dissolved and its energy dissipated into the inertia of the battlefield deserts of the Western Front. The sole pathways across these deserts were long black corduroy tracks, comprised of great baulks of timber laid side by side that seemed to float on the liquid mud. These trackways meandered across the battlefield, weaving between craters and obstacles, taking (as it were) the line of least resistance. In photographs and paintings they look like an aged river that has run its course. Many observers thought it the trademark of a lost cause:
    'Hopeless greyness, a landscape with only one colour, the dim greyness of mud below and a pall of cloud above. It was surely man's greatest devastation to
    date, nothing unobliterated that had been there before, but now only the duckboard tracks, the broken white tapes, the 'corduroy' road over the sea of shell-pitted
    mud.' 23
Many artists, too, found it an exact metaphor for inertia and hopelessness. Louis Ginnett's large oil of the Ypres Salient painted from memory after the war, shows one such meandering track that wanders rather aimlessly into the beleaguered landscape and then, like a river delta, splits in two, before vanishing into the mud. The cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather often called on the image of a meandering duck-board track as the epitome of futile and forsaken purpose. Compare his use of the straight road in the artwork for The Pilgrim's Way with the later heavily ironic cartoon '______ these ______rations' which shows a disgruntled rations-carrier stranded on a meandering track that winds a leisurely way to one of Bairnsfather's archetypal ruined villages.

As the final stage in the life cycle of the avenue the meandering duckboard track would, then, seem to represent little more than aimlessness and inertia. It might, though, have appealed to artists and writers for another reason - as an unconscious reminder of the archetypal meandering and informal English country lane, much celebrated in the popular culture of the day and used regularly in recruiting posters to spur civilians to defend their homeland, however idealised. 'Isn't this worth fighting for?' asks a kilted Scots soldier in one such poster, behind him an Arcadia of thatched cottages, rolling meadows and winding lanes. 24

As a final twist in the war time appropriation of the avenue and the lane, and by way of a postscript, the avenue was considered, by some combatants, to be the most fitting memorial to fallen comrades. Writer and officer Alexander Douglas Gillespie wrote from the trenches in 1916 that when the war had ended the governments of France and England should construct one long avenue between the lines from the Vosges to the sea. 'It would', he argued 'make a fine broad road on the 'No Man's Land' between the lines, with paths for pilgrims on foot, and plant trees for shade, and fruit trees so that the soil should not be altogether waste'. 25 But Gillespie's vision of a Via Sacra was not to be. Despite much enthusiasm in the press his vision of an endless commemorative avenue perished, as did its creator, in the formless void of the trenches.

1. The historian Denis Winter suggests that along with barbed wire and 'howitzers wheel to wheel', the column march was to become one of the unique charateristics of the war. (Death's Men, 1978, p.75)

2. Bernard Martin, Poor bloody Infantry: A Subaltern on the Western Front, 1987, p.41.

3. Charles Douie, The Weary Road: Recollections of a Subaltern of Infantry (1929/1988) p.39

4. Keith Henderson, Letters to Helen, 1917, p.4. Letter dated 6 June 1916.

5. George Coppard, With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 1980.

6. Alistair Horne, The Price of Glory, 1962, p.24.

7. A concise explanation of the three stages in the river's life is in L. Dudley Stamp, Britain's Structure and Scenery, New Naturalist, 1946/Fontana 1972, pp.60-63.

8. Phillip Gibbs, Realities of War, 1920, p.292.

9. Taken from a sales pamphlet for Brangwyn's The Ruins of War, etchings and lithographs commissioned by the Canadian War Memorial Fund. Artist's Publications, Oxford St., London.

10. Paul Maze. A Frenchman in Khaki, 1934, p.35. Extract dated 31 August 1914.

11. Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford UP, 1975, Chapter VII. 'Arcadian Discourses' Sam Hynes, in his lengthy study A War Imagined, similarly examines the disfigurement of Nature, and the irrelevance of the Romantic tradition in describing the uniform ugliness of the war landscape. (S. Hynes, A War Imagined: the First World War and English Culture, Bodley Head, 1990, Part III, 9, 'The Death of Landscape'.)

12. The original of this much-reproduced painting is in the Green Howards' Regimental Museum, Richmond, Yorkshire. It is reproduced in Geoffrey Powell, Famous Regiments: The Green Howards, 1983, p.78. A cropped version is reproduced in John Giles, Flanders Then and Now, 1987, p.23.

13. Reginald Farrer, Void of War, 1918, p.131.

14. IWM Dept. of Documents, 85/23/1 Anderson, Major A. MS account of his service with 9th Battalion Royal Scots in training and guard duty in Scotland, in France at Vimy Ridge (April-July 1916), at Beaumont Hamel and
High Wood (8-25 July 1916) and with 1/9 Battalion, 51st Division.

15. T.E. Hulme, 'Diary from the Trenches', Further Speculations, (Editor, Sam Hynes), Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1955, p.157.

16. IWM Department of Photography, Q 1163.

17. G.A.A. Willis, Sketches from France and Flanders, Vols. 1 and 2, Peter Liddle 1914-1918 Archive, University of Leeds.

18. Reginald Farrer, Void of War, p. 133.

19. ibid., p. 183.

20. Charles Douie, The Weary Road, pp. 138-139.

2l. Geoffrey Rose, 156 Sketches chiefly of the Western Front, IWM Dept. of Art nos. 4775-4930.

22. G.A.A. Willis, Peter Liddle Archive, University of Leeds.

23. H.E.I. Mellersh, A Schoolboy at War, 1978, p. 135 - 136.

24. IWM Dept of Art, Recruiting Poster

25. Alexander Douglas Gillespie, ' The Sacred Way', Letters from Flanders, Smith. Elder and Co., 1916, also quoted at length in E.B. Osborn (Ed), New Elizabethans. Bodley Head, 1919, pp. 112-114.